By Dr. Gerald A. Larson, Former Head, Chreshire Academt, CT
It is a common refrain heard from heads, trustees, parents, and teachers: “The board micromanages the school.” In today’s fast-paced world, lines of responsibilities are often blurred, and the board’s protective instincts may cloud the reality of a situation. If trustees believe the school faces a crisis, they may be mobilized to action and perhaps micromanagement. So, what are the signs that a board or individual trustee is micromanaging?
It’s micromanagement when a board or individual trustee:
• Talks directly to staff, then brings those issues up in a board meeting
• Conducts off-line discussions on operational issueswithout the head of school involved
• Issues a directive on operational matters (such as how to set up a classroom, who teaches what and to whom, or what an individual staff member’s salary should be)
• Gives unsolicited evaluations of staff effectiveness and performance
• Is continually seeing that things could be done better, like in business
• Makes decisions that should be made by the administration regarding staffing, admissions, programs, budget distribution
• Holds lengthy executive session meetings without the head of school present
• Reviews the budget line by line
• Continually discusses issues from a personal perspective.
So, why do boards micromanage? It most likely stems from several areas, the first being that individual board members are selected because they bring a specific skill set to the school and they know how to get things done. With those areas of expertise, a trustee is often called upon to perform pro-bono work for the school, so rather than assisting a professional staff member with the task, the individual trustee assumes the lead role in managing the work to be done.
As highly accomplished individuals, trustees are mostly doing rather than leading, and in practical terms, most trustees quite possibly have very little real-life experience leading. There is a strong belief that ultimate authority lies with the board and trustees and that they are in charge, and that view inherently creates role confusion and dysfunction. So, what’s to be done?
It is important for each member of the school community to understand the roles and responsibilities of the board of trustees. A straightforward model put forth by CompassPoint, a nonprofit services group, identifies two fundamental responsibilities: to govern and support. In the governance role, the board acts as a representative of the public where it governs and provides oversight for the school’s affairs. At the same time, individual trustees support the school by volunteering, raising money, and advising (when asked). Governing responsibilities include:
• Determining the mission, purpose, policies, strategy, and priorities
• Selecting, assessing, and serving as advisors for the head of school
• Overseeing compliance with laws, regulations, and contractual obligations
• Financial oversight, which includes a major role in fundraising for the school. The board as a group performs these governing responsibilities and no one individual trustee, including the board chair/president, has the same authority as a supervisor from the school administration. Instead, the group’s responsibility is to provide feedback and direction to the head of school.
As an individual trustee, a board member works to support the school by:
• Making the school one of their top philanthropic priorities by making a leadership financial contribution, volunteering at fundraising events, and soliciting cash and non-cash contributions
• Acting as an ambassador to the greater community, and as a recruiter of other volunteers
• Advising staff in areas of expertise, and acting as a sounding board for the head of school and administration (when asked).
As a volunteer, the individual performs these supporting activities, and it is important to understand that volunteers work for the professional staff. By following the simple fundamentals of governance and support, boards and individuals can avoid micromanagement and elevate overall governance to its most effective state.